Integrated Covenant Theology (3):
of the Covenant
Rev. Angus Stewart
(modified from an article first published in the Protestant Reformed
As in the previous two articles on Calvin’s covenant
theology, our point of entry is that section of his Institutes
in which he most fully treats the covenant (book 2, chapters 10 and 11).
For Calvin, the nature of God’s covenant, summed in the "very formula of
the covenant," determines the blessings of the covenant: "For the Lord
always covenanted with his servants thus: ‘I will be your God and you
will be my people’ [Lev. 26:12]. The prophets also commonly explained
that life and salvation and the whole of blessedness are embraced in
these words" (2.10.8, pp. 434-435).1 The context, the
reference to the "prophets" and the passages Calvin quotes (Deut. 32:29;
Ps. 33:12; 144:15; Hab. 1:12) indicate that these covenant blessings
("life and salvation and the whole of blessedness") are given to Old
Testament, and not only New Testament, saints!
In the next paragraph, Calvin proceeds from the
nature of the covenant ("the Lord is our God" and "I am … your God" [Ex.
6:7]) to list some of its blessings. Included amongst "an abundance of
good things" and "spiritual life" are God’s "face" shining upon us,
God’s "presence" such that He "dwells among us" and "union" with God
through "righteousness;" as well as "salvation," "the treasures of his
salvation," "everlasting salvation" and "assurance of salvation"
(2.10.8, p. 435).
Similarly, in his commentary on Ezekiel 14:11 and
after quoting the covenant formula, Calvin observes,
… it is well to remember what we said elsewhere,
that under these words is contained whatever belongs to solid
happiness. For if God acknowledges us as his people, we are certain
of our salvation … we have nothing else to wish for towards the
fullness of all good things and confidence in eternal life, than
that God should reckon us among his people (Comm. on Eze. 14:11).
Calvin argues that Jehovah "did not declare that he
would be a God to their bodies alone, but especially to their souls"
(2.10.8, p. 435). Nor is He merely our God in time but not in the world
[He] promised that he would ever be their God.
This he did that their hope, not content with present benefits,
might be extended to eternity. Many passages show that this
characterization of the future life was so understood among [the Old
Testament saints]" (2.10.9, p. 435).
Calvin goes on to treat these passages at length
(2.10.9-23, pp. 435-449).
For Calvin, the covenant promise to be our God,
applies not only to us in body and soul and in this world and the next,
but it also applies to our (elect) children. Jehovah declares, "‘I shall
be the God of your seed after you’ [Gen. 17:7 p.]," for He shows His
covenant "beneficence" and "mercy" "‘to a thousand generations’ [Ex.
20:6]," according to the promise of the second commandment (2.10.9, pp.
435, 436).2 Calvin calls Genesis 17:7 "the solemn covenant of
the church," and declares, "this blessing [is] promised in the covenant,
that God’s grace shall everlastingly abide in the families of the pious"
(2.8.21, p. 387).
Even in the Old Testament, God’s covenant promise for
body and soul, for time and eternity and for us and our children, was
through Jesus Christ, the mediator.3 Calvin repeatedly
affirms that, not only after the incarnation of the Son of God but also
before it, God’s covenant with His people is only through Christ (e.g.,
2.6, pp. 340-348; 2.9, pp. 423-428; Comms. on Ps. 89:30-33; Isa. 42:6;
49:8; 55:4). Thus the Genevan Reformer begins the final section of book
2, chapter 10: "There are two remaining points: that the Old Testament
fathers (1) had Christ pledge of their covenant, and (2) put in him all
trust of future blessedness" (2.10.23, p. 448).
Since God’s covenant is always in Christ, it must be
a spiritual covenant. This is "a principle unassailable by any
stratagems of the devil" which Calvin has "boldly established:" "the Old
Testament or Covenant that the Lord had made with the Israelites had not
been limited to earthly things, but contained a promise of spiritual and
eternal life" (2.10.23, p. 448).
Calvin insightfully notes that Old Testament
believers not only looked to Christ but also, thereby, looked to and
communicated in the future age: "We must also note this about the holy
patriarchs: they so lived under the Old Covenant as not to remain there
but ever to aspire to the New, and thus embraced a real share in it"
(2.11.10, p. 460).
The Genevan Reformer summarises, with approval, part
of Augustine’s Against Two Letters of the Pelagians on the Old
... the children of the promise [Rom. 9:8],
reborn of God, who have obeyed the commands by faith working through
love [Gal. 5:6], have belonged to the New Covenant since the world
began. This they did, not in hope of carnal, earthly, and temporal
things, but in hope of spiritual, heavenly, and eternal benefits.
For they believed especially in the Mediator; and they did not doubt
that through him the Spirit was given to them that they might do
good, and that they were pardoned whenever they sinned (2.11.10, p.
This is the conclusion Calvin draws: "It is that very
point which I intended to affirm: all the saints whom Scripture mentions
as being peculiarly chosen of God from the beginning of the world have
shared with us the same blessing unto eternal salvation" (2.11.10, p.
Even justification by faith alone (by grace alone
through Christ alone) is a blessing belonging to "the covenant of the
gospel" in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament:
… the Old Testament was established upon the free
mercy of God, and was confirmed by Christ’s intercession. For the
gospel preaching, too, declares nothing else than that sinners are
justified apart from their own merit by God’s fatherly kindness; and
the whole of it is summed up in Christ. Who, then, dares to separate
the Jews from Christ, since with them, we hear, was made the
covenant of the gospel, the sole foundation of which is Christ? Who
dares to estrange from the gift of free salvation those to whom we
hear the doctrine of the righteousness of faith was imparted? Not to
dispute too long about something obvious—we have a notable saying of
the Lord: "Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and
was glad" [John 8:56]. And what Christ there testified concerning
Abraham, the apostle shows to have been universal among the
believing folk when he says: "Christ remains, yesterday and today
and forever" [Heb. 13:8] (2.10.4, p. 431).
Peter Lillback lists many of the covenant blessings
referred to in the writings of Calvin:
The saving benefits found in the covenant
include: Christ as redeemer, salvation, eternal life, adoption,
redemption, gospel, union with God, eternal salvation, life,
blessedness, inheritance, privilege, access to God, reconciliation,
pardon, forgiveness of sins, adoption into salvation, regeneration
or sanctification, resurrection, and the believer’s future and
eternal happiness, all of which is due to God’s covenantal mercy and
As Calvin eloquently puts it, "Since therefore this
covenant contains solid and perfect blessedness, it follows that all who
are excluded from it are miserable" (Comm. on Isa. 54:10).
The Two Main Covenant Blessings
The "Two Main Parts" of the Covenant
Calvin often systematizes the blessings of salvation
(soteriology) under a covenant scheme, that of the Bible itself in the
celebrated prophecy of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34. However,
as one would expect, given that Institutes 2.10-11 deal with the
similarities and differences between the Old and New Testaments, the
passage from Jeremiah 31 (2.11.7-8, pp. 456-457) and other Scriptures
which allude to it—II Corinthians 3 (2.11.7-8, pp. 456-457), Hebrews
8-10 (2.11.4, pp. 453-454) and "the cup of the New Testament in my blood
[Luke 22:20 p.]" (2.11.4, p. 454)—are here treated not soteriologically
(in terms of the blessings of the covenant) but hermeneutically (in
interpreting the comparisons and contrasts between the old and new
In his commentary on Hebrews 8:8-12, itself quoting
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Calvin declares, "There are two main parts in this
covenant; the first regards the gratuitous remission of sins; and the
other, the inward renovation of the heart" (Comm. on Heb. 8:10). The
"two main parts" do not refer to those embraced in the everlasting
covenant (the Triune God and His elect people in Christ), nor to
Jehovah’s work of saving us on the one hand and our calling to live new
and holy lives on the other. The "two main parts in this covenant" are
the two central covenant blessings of (legal) justification ("I will be
merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities
will I remember no more") and (organic) regeneration or sanctification
("I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts"),
as Calvin states above and goes on to explain (Comm. on Heb. 8:10).
Given that Calvin speaks of "two main parts" of the
covenant and since the Triune God establishes His covenant
by redeeming us through the cross of Christ, it is no
surprise that the French Reformer also refers to the two
"parts" of redemption or, to speak more precisely, the two
(main) parts of the application of redemption. Thus Calvin
lists "both parts of redemption—the remission of sins, by
which God imputes righteousness to us [i.e.,
justification],—and the sanctification of the Spirit, by
whom he forms us anew unto good works" (Comm. on Rom. 6:14).
Commenting on the covenant formula in Ezekiel
11:19-20, Calvin refers again to "these two things" (i.e., the covenant
blessings of justification and sanctification), this time with a more
practical application: the two are inseparable and so those who claim to
be forgiven, yet live wickedly, seek to "rend" and "sever" God’s
covenant and "abolish half" of it:
Hence, whenever our salvation is treated of, let
these two things be remembered, that we cannot be reckoned God’s
sons unless he freely expiate our sins, and thus reconcile himself
to us [i.e., justification]: and then not unless he also rule us by
his Spirit [i.e., sanctification]. Now we must hold, that what God
hath joined man ought not to separate. Those, therefore, who through
relying on the indulgence of God permit themselves to give way to
sin, rend his covenant and impiously sever it. Why so? because God
has joined these two things together, viz., that he will be
propitious to his sons [i.e., justification], and will also renew
their hearts [i.e., sanctification]. Hence those who lay hold of
only one member of the sentence, namely, the pardon [i.e.,
justification], because God bears with them, and omit the other
[i.e., sanctification], are as false and sacrilegious as if they
abolished half of God’s covenant (Comm. on Eze. 11:19-20).
In his exposition of the fifth and sixth petitions of
the Lord’s Prayer ("forgive us our debts … and lead us not into
temptation, but deliver us from evil"), Calvin refers to these "two
members" of the covenant (justification and sanctification), again with
reference to Jeremiah 31.
Christ briefly embraces all that makes for the
heavenly life, as the spiritual covenant that God has made for the
salvation of his church rests on these two members alone: "I shall
write my laws upon their hearts," and, "I shall be merciful towards
their iniquity" [Jer. 31:33 p.; cf. ch. 33:8]. Here [i.e., in the
fifth and sixth petitions of the Lord’s Prayer] Christ begins with
forgiveness of sins [i.e., justification], then presently adds the
second grace: that God protect us by the power of his Spirit and
sustain us by his aid so we may stand unvanquished against all
temptations [i.e., sanctification] (3.20.45, p. 910).
As in his commentary on Ezekiel 11:19-20, Calvin goes
on to stress the inseparability of these two covenant blessings. But
whereas there Calvin was opposing antinomians, here he is attacking
perfectionist "rascals" "who imagine such perfection for themselves as
would make it unnecessary to seek pardon." Calvin denounces these "new
doctors" who have no need to pray "forgive us our debts" because of
their spurious claim to "perfect innocence."
… these rascals, by cancelling one section of it
[i.e., "I shall be merciful towards their iniquity"], tear apart
God’s covenant, in which we see our salvation contained, and topple
it from its foundation … they are guilty of sacrilege in separating
things till now joined (3.20.45, p. 911).
In his treatment of vows, Calvin returns to the two
great blessings of the covenant: "in the covenant of grace … are
contained both forgiveness of sins and the spirit of sanctification"
(4.13.6, p. 1260).5
The Two-Fold Grace of Christ
Since Christ is the Christ of the covenant, it comes
as no surprise to observe Calvin referring to what he has called the
"two main parts," the "two things" and the "two members" of the covenant
as the "two-fold grace" of Christ.
[By] the two-fold grace of Christ … believers,
being regenerated by the Spirit, should aspire to the obedience of
righteousness [i.e., sanctification], and [are] reconciled freely to
God through the forgiveness of their sins [i.e., justification]
(Comm. on Deut. 30:19).
In the next sentence, Calvin asserts, "the same
covenant is common to us and to the ancient people." Thus both Old
Testament and New Testament saints receive the same covenant blessings,
being justified and sanctified by "the two-fold grace of Christ,"
contrary to "the Papists" who "extol free-will" and "boast of merits"
(Comm. on Deut. 30:19).
In a sermon on Galatians 2:17-18, Calvin, with a
slight variation in terminology, refers to "the two principal graces of
our Lord Jesus Christ."
The one is the forgiveness of our sins, whereby
we are assured of our salvation, and have our consciences quieted
[i.e., justification] … The second is, that whereas we be forward of
our own nature … when we have once tasted the inestimable love of
our God, and perceived what our Lord Jesus Christ is: then we be so
touched by his [H]oly [S]pirit, that we condemn the evil, and desire
to draw near unto God, and to frame ourselves to his holy will
In this same sermon, Calvin also enumerates the "two
graces" of justification and sanctification as, respectively, the "first
benefit" and the "second benefit which our Lord Jesus Christ bringeth
Preaching on that celebrated gospel text, Genesis 15:6, the Genevan
Reformer extols our Redeemer's riches towards us in that we receive not
merely a single or "simple grace and favor" but a "double" grace and
... our Savior Jesus Christ beareth us not only a simple grace and favor,
but a double, that is to say: that on the one side he covereth all our iniquities
and offenses through his pure obedience [i.e.,
justification], and appeaseth
the wrath of God his father by that Sacrifice which he
offered up once for all, to make satisfaction for our
sins: and yet he so ruleth and governeth us in the
meanwhile by his holy spirit whom he hath received in
all fullness and resteth upon him, that if so be we do
not abuse his grace bestowed upon us, we are freed from
the bands of Satan, that we might take good heed as
(Saint Peter saith) not to follow the lusts and desires
of the flesh [i.e., sanctification].8
Just as the Lord Jesus grants us "not only a simple grace
and favor, but a double," so Calvin teaches that we receive
two gifts or a double gift: "it is not one or a single gift;
for being clothed with the righteousness of the Son, we are
reconciled to God [i.e., justification], and we are by the
power of the Spirit renewed unto holiness [i.e.,
sanctification]" (Comm. on Rom. 6:23).
In the Institutes, the "two-fold grace"
or favour or gift of Christ is
as the "double grace" we receive in union with Him:
By partaking of [Christ], we principally receive
a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through
Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a
gracious Father [i.e., justification]; and secondly, that being
sanctified by Christ’s Spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and
purity of life [i.e., sanctification] (3.11.1, p. 725).
This comes right at the start of the eight-chapter
treatment of justification in Calvin’s Institutes (3.11-18). Even
as he begins this subject, he has his eye on a major Roman Catholic
attack on the truth of justification by faith alone: "You Reformed
people proclaim the free forgiveness of sins in order that you may live
loosely!" Calvin gets his defence in early: those whom God justifies in
Christ, He also sanctifies.
Calvin also uses this powerful argument at the start
of Institutes 3.16, a chapter devoted to the refutation of false
accusations of the Romanists against justification by faith alone.
Why, then, are we justified by faith? Because by
faith we grasp Christ’s righteousness, by which alone we are
reconciled to God. Yet you could not grasp this without at the same
time grasping sanctification also. For he "is given unto us for
righteousness, wisdom, sanctification, and redemption" [I Cor.
1:30]. Therefore Christ justifies no one whom he does not at the
same time sanctify. These benefits are joined together by an
everlasting and indissoluble bond, so that those whom he illumines
by his wisdom, he redeems; those whom he redeems, he justifies;
those whom he justifies, he sanctifies (3.16.1, p. 798).
Similarly, Calvin states that the "benefits" of
justification and sanctification are "two things knit together by an
unseparable [i.e., inseparable] band," a point he goes on to illustrate
by the inseparable light and heat of the sun.9
Justification and sanctification must be
distinguished but they must not be separated, declares Calvin:
Although we may distinguish [justification and
sanctification], Christ contains both of them inseparably in
himself. Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ [i.e.,
justification]? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot
possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification,
because he cannot be divided into pieces [I Cor. 1:13]. Since,
therefore, it is solely by expending himself that the Lord gives us
these benefits to enjoy, he bestows both of them at the same time,
the one never without the other (3.16.1, p. 798).
As Alister McGrath puts it,
For Calvin, justification and sanctification are both
direct consequences of the believer's incorporation into Christ. If the
believer has been united with Christ through faith, he or she is at one
and the same time made acceptable in the sight of God (justification),
and launched on the path to moral improvement (sanctification).10
Calvin sums up by explaining that we are justified by
faith alone but not a faith that is alone, that we are justified by
faith without works but not a faith that is without works: "Thus it is
clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not
through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us,
sanctification is just as much included as [imputed] righteousness
[i.e., justification]" (3.16.1, p. 798).
Since Christ is the covenant Christ and the "two main
parts" of the covenant (justification and sanctification) are treasured
in Him, to separate imputed and infused righteousness is not only to
"sacrilegiously" "tear apart God’s covenant" (3.20.45, p. 910); it is
also to "divide" (3.16.1, p. 798), "tear" (3.11.6, p. 732; Comm. on I
Cor. 1:30) and "shamefully rend Christ asunder" (Comm. on Rom. 6:1) by a "mutilated faith" (Comm. on
Rom. 8:13). In Institutes 3.11.6, Calvin refers to Christ being
"torn into parts;" in his commentary on I Corinthians 1:30, He is
torn "in pieces." Calvin, of course, is not speaking literally, a
point he makes abundantly clear: "he who attempts to sever
[justification and sanctification] does in a manner tear Christ
in pieces" (Comm. on I Cor. 1:30), for "Christ cannot be torn
into parts" (3.11.6, p. 732).
Through all this we see how the great Reformer
skilfully uses the truth of God’s covenant and its two main blessings in
Jesus Christ not only to defend the gospel of justification by faith
alone in Christ alone, but also to call God’s people to a new and holy
The Office of the Holy Spirit
For Calvin, the theologian of the Holy Spirit, as B.
B. Warfield famously dubbed him, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the
covenant, for in the new covenant "the regeneration of the Spirit … is
promised" (Comm. on Jer. 31:34).11 In fact, this is what makes
the new covenant, "in some respects, a new thing, that God regenerates
the faithful by his Spirit" (Comm. on Jer. 31:31-32).
Calvin also teaches that we receive Christ and all
His blessings through the Holy Spirit and by faith.12 In his
commentary on I Corinthians 6:11, while noting that the "three terms
[washed, sanctified and justified] have the same general meaning,"
Calvin adds, "there is, nevertheless, great force in their very
variety." Calvin explains,
… there is an implied contrast between …
and pollution—justification and guilt. His meaning is,
that having been once justified, they must not draw
down upon themselves a new condemnation—that, having been
they must not pollute themselves anew (Comm. on I Cor. 6:11).
Calvin’s comments continue:
With propriety and elegance he distinguishes
between different offices [i.e., the roles of Christ and the Holy
Spirit]. For the blood of Christ is the procuring cause of our
cleansing: righteousness [i.e., justification] and sanctification
come to us through his death and resurrection. But, as the cleansing
effected by Christ, and the attainment of righteousness, are of no
avail except to those who have been made partakers of those
blessings by the influence of the Holy Spirit, it is with propriety
that he makes mention of the Spirit in connection with Christ.
Christ, then, is the source of all blessings to us: from him we
obtain all things; but Christ himself, with all his blessings [i.e.,
especially in this context, justification and sanctification], is
communicated to us by the Spirit. For it is by faith that we receive
Christ, and have his graces applied to us. The Author of faith is
the Spirit (Comm. on I Cor. 6:11).
Defending the faith against the Roman Catholic
Cardinal Sadoleto, Calvin insists on the inseparability
of justification and sanctification because of the
inseparability of Christ and the Spirit:
For if he who has obtained justification possesses
Christ and, at the same time, Christ never is where His
Spirit is not, it is obvious that gratuitous
righteousness is necessarily connected with
regeneration. Therefore, if you would duly understand
how inseparable faith and works are, look to Christ,
who, as the Apostle teaches (I Cor. 1:30), has been
given to us for justification and sanctification.
Wherever, therefore, that righteousness of faith, which
we maintain to be gratuitous, is, there too Christ is,
and where Christ is, there too is the Spirit of
holiness, who regenerates the soul to newness of life.
On the contrary, where zeal for integrity and holiness
is not in vigor, there neither is the Spirit of Christ
nor Christ Himself; and wherever Christ is not, there is
no righteousness, nay, there is no faith; for faith
cannot apprehend Christ for righteousness without the
Spirit of sanctification.13
In his commentary
on Hebrews 10:29, Calvin relates God's covenant, Christ, the Holy Spirit
and God's blessings. "The blood of the covenant" or "the blood of
Christ" "would avail us nothing, except we were sprinkled with
it by the Holy Spirit; and hence come our expiation [i.e.,
justification] and sanctification."
Calvin goes on to mention other
"benefits," besides these two main covenant blessings, that we receive
through "the Spirit of grace," such as illumination, assurance of
sonship, new life and union with Christ and His church:
... it is by the Spirit and
through his influence that we receive the grace offered to us in
Christ. For he it is who enlightens our minds by faith, who seals
the adoption of God on our hearts, who regenerates us unto newness
of life, who grafts us into the body of Christ, that he may live in
us and we in him. He is therefore rightly called the Spirit of
grace, by whom Christ becomes ours with all his blessings (Comm. on
The Two Topics of the Gospel
Not only do both the covenant and Christ contain the
double blessings of justification and sanctification; Calvin also
embraces these benefits under the gospel. After all, Christ is the
Christ of the gospel, and the covenant is "the covenant of the gospel"
(2.10.4, p. 431). "With good reason," states Calvin, "the sum of the
gospel is held to consist in repentance and forgiveness of sins" (3.3.1,
p. 592).14 Both "these two topics," he adds significantly,
"are conferred on us by Christ, and both are attained by us through
faith." What Calvin identifies as the "two topics" of the gospel (3.3.1,
p. 592), he later refers to as "two headings."
Now if it is true—a fact abundantly clear—that
the whole of the gospel is contained under these two headings,
repentance and forgiveness of sins, do we not see that the Lord
freely justifies his own in order that he may at the same time
restore them to true righteousness by sanctification of the Spirit
(3.3.19, p. 613)?
The Two Graces Signified in Baptism
With Christ and His gospel both containing the "two
main parts" of the covenant, it is natural for Calvin to describe the
sacrament of baptism (the New Testament equivalent of circumcision) as a
sign and seal of both justification and sanctification:
We have, therefore, a spiritual promise given to
the patriarchs in circumcision such as is given us in baptism, since
it represented for them forgiveness of sins [i.e., justification],
and mortification of the flesh [i.e., sanctification]. Moreover, as
we have taught that Christ is the foundation of baptism, in whom
both of these reside, so it is also evident that he is the
foundation of circumcision (4.16.3, p. 1327).
Dropping the parallel between circumcision and baptism, Calvin
writes, "Thus, the pardon of sins and the imputation of righteousness
[i.e., justification] are first promised us [in baptism], and then the
grace of the Holy Spirit to reform us to newness of life [i.e.,
sanctification]" (4.15.5, p. 1307).
Not only does baptism (or circumcision) represent
justification and sanctification; Calvin also teaches that it signifies
justification and issues a call to sanctification, as in this quotation
that refers to Father Abraham:
… the first access to God, the first entry into
eternal life, is the forgiveness of sins. Accordingly this
corresponds to the promise of baptism that we shall be cleansed
[i.e., justification]. Afterward, the Lord covenants with Abraham
that he should walk before him in uprightness and innocence of heart
[Gen. 17:1]. This applies to mortification, or regeneration [i.e.,
the call to sanctification] (4.16.3, p. 1326).15
"Cleansing" and "mortification" (or justification and
sanctification) are the "two graces" signified in baptism (4.15.9, p.
1310); as they are the "two main parts," the "two things" and the "two
members" of the covenant; the "two-fold grace," the "two principal
graces" and the "double grace" in Christ Himself; and the "two topics"
and the "two headings" of the gospel.16
The Lord’s Supper, a Seal of Covenant Blessings
For Calvin, the Lord’s Supper is a "covenant-seal"
(Comm. on I Cor. 11:23) by which believers "are made partakers of all
the blessings which Christ has procured for us in his body" through "the
secret and wonderful work of the Holy Spirit" (Comm. on I Cor. 11:24).
Like baptism, the other Christian sacrament, the Supper is "an aid to
our faith related to the preaching of the gospel" (4.14.1, p. 1276),
joined to the Word "as a sort of appendix, with the purpose of
confirming and sealing the promise [of salvation]" (4.14.3, p. 1278).
Christ’s words of institution at the Last Supper
specifically relate the covenant and its first "main part:" "For this is
my blood of the new testament [i.e., covenant], which is shed for many
for the remission of sins [i.e., justification]" (Matt. 26:28). Thus
Calvin notes that in this sacrament of God’s "everlasting covenant"
"believing souls [are] satisfied … by being assured that God is pacified
towards them" for their "own sins have been expiated"—justification
(Comm. on Mark 14:24; cf. 2.17.4, p. 531).
However, in his various writings Calvin much more
frequently speaks in terms of the second principal covenant blessing, in
keeping with the dominant scriptural presentation of spiritual eating
and drinking of Christ’s body and blood at the Lord’s Supper. The
sacrament is presented, for example, as a means of sanctification in
this quotation from the Institutes:
… when bread is given as a symbol of Christ’s
body, we must at once grasp this comparison: as bread nourishes,
sustains, and keeps the life of the body, so Christ’s body is the
only food to invigorate and enliven our soul. When we see wine set
forth as a symbol of blood, we must reflect on the benefits which
wine imparts to the body, and so realise that the same are
spiritually imparted to us by Christ’s blood. These benefits are to
nourish, refresh, strengthen, and gladden (4.17.3, p. 1363).
Calvin refers to the blessings of both justification
and sanctification through believing partaking of the Lord’s Supper, for
it is "a mirror in which we may contemplate Jesus Christ crucified to
take away our offences [i.e., justification] and raised again to deliver
us from corruption [i.e., sanctification]."17
In his exposition of John 6 on Christ’s discourse on
Himself as the bread of life, Calvin explains what the Lord means when
He presents His flesh as "life-giving:"
This will not be difficult to understand, if we
consider what is the cause of life, namely, righteousness. And
though righteousness flows from God alone, still we shall not attain
the full manifestation of it any where else than in the flesh of
Christ; for in it was accomplished the redemption of man, in it a
sacrifice was offered to atone for sins, and an obedience yielded to
God [for our justification] … it was also filled with the
sanctification of the Spirit [for our sanctification] (Comm. on John
The Genevan Reformer rightly notes that, though John
6 is not referring, first of all, to the Lord’s Supper, it may be
applied to the sacrament of His broken body and shed blood.
It is certain, then, that he now speaks of the
perpetual and ordinary manner of eating the flesh of Christ, which
is done by faith only. And yet, at the same time, I acknowledge that
there is nothing said here that is not figuratively represented, and
actually bestowed on believers, in the Lord’s Supper; and Christ
even intended that the holy Supper should be, as it were, a seal and
confirmation of this sermon (Comm. on John 6:54).
The Third Covenant Blessing
In his commentary on Hebrews 8:8-12, after Calvin
declares, "There are two main parts in this covenant; the first regards
the gratuitous remission of sins [i.e., justification]; and the other,
the inward renovation of the heart [i.e., sanctification]," he adds,
"there is a third which depends on the second, and that is the
illumination of the mind as to the knowledge of God" (Comm. on Heb.
Likewise, in his commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34, the
passage quoted in Hebrews 8:8-12, Calvin states,
Here, then, he speaks of the grace of
regeneration [i.e., sanctification], of the gift of knowledge [i.e.,
illumination], and at the same time promises that God would be
propitious to his people [i.e., justification] in a different and
more perfect way than he had been in former times (Comm. on Jer.
However, the three blessings are not numbered in
Calvin’s commentary on Jeremiah 31:34; in fact, they can only be
identified as such in the light of his commentary on Hebrews 8:10-11.
Even there, Calvin notes that the third covenant blessing (illumination)
"depends on the second" (sanctification) (Comm. on Heb. 8:10) and "is as
it were a part of" it (Comm. on Heb. 8:11). The distinct yet inseparable
"two main parts" of the covenant were much more useful to him in
his battles with Romanists and antinomians than a threefold
An Integrated Covenant Theology
This series of articles is entitled "John Calvin’s
Integrated Covenant Theology" with good reason. For Calvin, the covenant
not only serves to demonstrate the unity of the Bible and the people of
God in all ages; it also shows the unity of the blessings of salvation.
Though he does not treat each of the elements of the ordo salutis
in turn as a covenant blessing, as does Herman Witsius in Book III of
his The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man
or David McKay in chapter 7 of his The Bond of Love,20
Calvin repeatedly explains that all the blessings of salvation are
summed in the covenant formula, "I will be your God and you will be my
people," which evidently includes, for instance, reconciliation, union
with the Triune God in Jesus Christ, access to God in prayer and eternal
Moreover, "the two main parts" of the covenant,
justification and sanctification are legal and organic blessings. From
these Calvin often goes on to discuss faith (the way of receiving
justification), the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of Christ’s
righteousness (the two parts of justification) and adoption and our
eternal inheritance (closely related to justification); as well as
regeneration (the beginning of sanctification), repentance or
mortification and vivification (the two parts of sanctification), the
struggle between the old and the new man and the Christian life.
We may add the "third point" of the covenant (Comm.
on Heb. 8:11), illumination, which includes the knowledge of God (as
creator and redeemer in Jesus Christ) and the knowledge of ourselves (as
fallen in Adam and saved in Christ) (cf. 1.1.1, pp. 35-37).
Also, as we saw at the start of this article, Calvin
presents God’s covenant blessings as for body and soul, for time and
eternity and for us and our children (2.10.8-9, pp. 434-436). This is
indeed an integrated theology of covenant blessings!
Calvin even includes a covenant blessing few
would think of. He observes that God's promise, "I will bless them that
bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee" (Gen. 12:3), is embraced in
His "covenant with Abram." Calvin infers "this general doctrine, that
God so embraces us with his favour, that he will bless our friends, and
take vengeance on our enemies." "This," Calvin rightly believes, "is an
inestimable pledge of special love" for it manifests "the extraordinary
kindness of God" (Comm. on Gen. 12:3).
Covenant Blessings All of Grace!
For Calvin, since the gospel of Christ and salvation
are all of grace, the covenant, as the "covenant of the gospel" (2.10.4,
p. 431) and the "covenant of salvation" (Comms. on Gen. 12:3; Heb.
8:10), must be, and is, also all of grace. Calvin even uses the term
"covenant of grace" (e.g., 4.13.6, p. 1260; Comm. on Isa. 42:6)
and "covenant of free grace" (Comm. on Isa. 55:3).21
For him, God’s grace and God’s covenant are inseparably joined.
Here are Calvin’s comments on "the mercies of David"
in Isaiah 55:3: "by this phrase he declares that it was a covenant of
free grace; for it was founded on nothing else than the absolute
goodness of God." Clearly, the origin and source of Jehovah’s covenant
is His eternal loving-kindness (Comm. on Gen. 12:1).
Moreover, God’s mercies come to us through His
covenant with us.22 The covenant is "the
source or spring of salvation" with all its blessings, including
By the way of God
is meant his covenant, which is the source or spring of salvation, and
by which he discovered himself in the character of a Father to his
ancient people, and afterwards more clearly under the Gospel, when the
Spirit of adoption was shed abroad in greater abundance (Comm. on Ps.
On the Lord's keeping "covenant and mercy" with
those who love him, Calvin states that we may "resolve the phrase" as
"the covenant founded on mercy—or the mercy which He covenanted" (Comm.
on Deut. 7:9). Thus Calvin teaches that God's free grace is both the
source and the fruit of the covenant. No wonder, that the Genevan
Reformer lays down this a general principle: "Whenever, therefore, the
word ‘covenant’ occurs in Scripture, we ought at the same time to call
to remembrance the word ‘grace’" (Comm. on Isa. 55:3).
In this article, it must be stressed that the
blessings of the covenant and especially the two main covenant blessings
declare that the covenant is gracious. Thus in his comments on Jeremiah
31:31-34, Calvin attacks the "foolish" and "arrogant" Romish "conceit"
of free will that claims to "co-operate" with God, and so he exalts
"grace" alone that God may receive all the "glory" in His covenant.
We may further learn from this passage, how
foolish the Papists are in their conceit about free-will. They
indeed allow that without the help of God’s grace we are not capable
of fulfilling the Law, and thus they concede something to the aid of
grace and of the Spirit: but still they not only imagine a
co-operation as to free-will, but ascribe to it the main work. Now
the Prophet here testifies that it is the peculiar work of God to
write his Law in our hearts. Since God then declares that this
favour is justly his, and claims to himself the glory of it, how
great must be the arrogance of men to appropriate this to
themselves? To write the Law in the heart imports nothing
less than so to form it, that the Law should rule there, and that
there should be no feeling of the heart, not conformable and not
consenting to its doctrine. It is hence then sufficiently clear,
that no one can be turned so as to obey the Law, until he be
regenerated by the Spirit of God; nay, that there is no inclination
in man to act rightly, except God prepares his heart by his grace
(Comm. on Jer. 31:33).
In his exposition of Hebrews 8:10-11, Calvin exalts
divine grace alone in his treatment of each of the "two main parts" of
the covenant (Comm. on Heb. 8:10) and the "third point" (Comm. on Heb.
8:11). First, God alone must sanctify us by His Spirit because "perverse
passions rule within, which lead us to rebellion," for "our will is
carried away by a sort of insane impulse to resist God." Second, God
alone must justify us for "we are all of us guilty," and even as
believers our old nature is still "vicious" and "many corrupt affections
of the flesh still remain," so that, of ourselves, "we are still guilty
[i.e., worthy] of eternal death before God." By the marvel of God’s
grace, "pardon is promised to [us], not for one day only, but to the
very end of life" (Comm. on Heb. 8:10). Third, God alone must illumine
us since "our minds are blind and destitute of all right understanding
until they are illuminated by the Spirit of God." "Thus," Calvin
concludes, "God is rightly known by those alone to whom he has been
pleased by a special favour to reveal himself" (Comm. on Heb. 8:11).
Calvin’s comments on these same key passages in
Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8 on the two main covenant blessings also extol
the far richer, catholic blessings of the new covenant, of which we are
Jeremiah … shews … how much more abundant and
richer the favour of God would be towards his people [i.e., in the
New Testament] than formerly [i.e., in the Old Testament]. He then
does not simply promise the restoration of that dignity and
greatness which they had lost, but something better and more
excellent (Comm. on Jer. 31:31-32).
As then the Father has put forth more fully the
power of his Spirit under the kingdom of Christ, and has poured
forth more abundantly his mercy on mankind, this exuberance renders
insignificant the small portion of grace which he had been pleased
to bestow on the fathers. We also see that the promises were then
obscure and intricate, so that they shone only like the moon and
stars in comparison with the clear light of the Gospel which shines
brightly on us (Comm. on Heb. 8:10).
1 As in parts 1 and 2, all citations of the Institutes are
from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John
T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: The
Westminster Press, 1960) and all citations of Calvin’s commentaries are
from the 22-volume Baker (repr. 1993) edition.
Anabaptists attacked God’s truth by teaching a carnal covenant in
the Old Testament and a childless covenant in the New Testament.
The latter is true of all Baptists and the former of, at least, many
Baptists in our own day.
is "the sole Mediator of all God's covenanted blessings," to quote
Philip Edgcumbe Hughes's nice turn of phrase (Interpreting Prophecy
[Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976], p. 10).
A. Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of
Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), pp. 178-179. In his
extensive footnotes, Lillback cites as proof various places in Calvin’s
literary corpus, especially his Institutes.
places where Calvin mentions the two main covenant blessings of Jeremiah
31:31-34 include his commentaries on Leviticus 26:9, Ezekiel 16:61-62
and Daniel 9:27.
6 John Calvin,
Sermons on Galatians (Audubon, NJ: Old Paths, 1995), pp. 277-278.
7 Calvin, Galatians, pp. 279,
8 John Calvin, Sermons on Melchizedek and Abraham (Audubon, NJ: Old Paths, 2000), pp. 187-188.
9 Calvin, Galatians, pp.
10 Alister E.
McGrath, A Life of John Calvin (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p. 166.
the "new covenant" promises "that God would endow them with the Spirit
of regeneration" (Comm. on Deut. 30:6).
Calvin puts it, "to say all in one word, [the Holy Spirit] makes Christ
with all his benefits to become ours" (Comm. on I John 5:8).
13 John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto, A
Sadoleto’s Letter to the Genevans and Calvin’s Reply,
ed. John C. Olin (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), p. 68.
few lines later, Calvin uses "newness of life" as synonymous with
"repentance" (3.3.1, p. 592). Calvin often treats repentance as the
equivalent of mortification, which in turn implies quickening or
vivification, which two constitute the negative and positive parts of
sanctification (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 88-90).
Thus he states that repentance "consists in the mortification of our
flesh and of the old man, and in the vivification of the Spirit" (3.3.5,
p. 597). As Ronald S. Wallace puts it, "Calvin, when he wishes to vary
his language, can use many other terms such as repentance,
mortification, new life, conversion, regeneration, to denote exactly the
same as he means by the word sanctification" (Calvin’s Doctrine of
the Christian Life
[Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd, 1959], p. 25).
is similar to our Form for the Administration of Baptism which in its
second principle part declares (in brief) that the Triune God makes an
eternal covenant of grace with us, justifies us and sanctifies us and,
therefore, in the third principle part calls us to a life of
sanctification (The Confessions and Church Order of the Protestant
Reformed Churches [USA: PRCA, 2005], p. 258).
Calvin, the benefits received by elect believers through the sacraments
are not only covenant blessings in Christ; they are also inwardly
wrought by the Holy Ghost: "all [the] efficacy and utility [of the
sacraments] is lodged in the Spirit alone," for grace "depends on the
secret operation of his Spirit" (Comm. on Deut. 30:6).
in Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), p. 201.
the prayer before partaking of the sacrament, in our Form for the
Administration of the Lord’s Supper, we beseech God, that He will be
pleased in this Supper to work in us that more and more we may "be made
partakers of the new and everlasting covenant of grace" so that "we may
not doubt but [He will] forever be our gracious Father, nevermore
imputing our sins unto us [i.e., justification], and … grant us also
[His] grace, that we may take up our cross cheerfully, deny ourselves,
confess our Saviour [i.e., sanctification]" (The Confessions and
Church Order, p. 272).
is not to deny that in various places Calvin speaks of illumination as a
covenant blessing taught in Jeremiah 31:31-34, as well as justification
and sanctification: justification (e.g., 3.4.29, p. 656; Comms. on Ps.
89:30-33; Rom. 11:27), sanctification (e.g., 1.9.3, p. 95; 2.5.4, p.
321; 2.5.9, p. 326; 2.7.12, p. 360; Comms. on Deut. 30:6, 11; Eze.
18:14-17, 31; Matt. 5:17; Rom. 2:29; II Cor. 3:3, 6) and illumination
(e.g., Comms. on Isa. 11:10; 54:13; Hos. 2:19-20; Matt. 13:16; 24:4;
Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man:
Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity (Escondido, CA: The den
Dulk Christian Foundation, repr. 1990), vol. 1, pp. 344-468 and vol. 2,
pp. 1-107; David McKay, The Bond of Love: God’s Covenantal
Relationship with His Church (Great Britain: Christian Focus
Publications, 2001), pp. 137-165.
The Necessity of Reforming the Church, Calvin speaks of the
"covenant of grace" which was "ratified in Christ" as the covenant He
made with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David, and the confidence this gives
us in prayer (Dallas, TX: Protestant Heritage Press, 1995), p. 53.
22 As Calvin states, "It is the fruit of the covenant, that God
chooses us for his people [referring here to the result in time of God's
election of us in eternity], and assures us that he will be the
guardian of our salvation" (Comm. on Heb. 8:10).